Neave joined the British Army on the outbreak of the Second World War. Sent to France he was wounded at Calais in 1940 and taken prisoner by the German Army. After escaping from his first POW camp he was sent to the maximum security prison at Colditz Castle.
In January 1942 Neave became the first British officer to escape from Colditz. On his return to England he helped to train air crews in the means of escape in occupied territory. He was also recruited into M19, a branch of M16 responsible for the support of the French Resistance. As a result of his war service Neave was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
In 1946 Neave was a member of the Nuremberg war crimes team. He joined the Conservative Party and in the 1951 General Election was elected to the House of Commons. Neave held several junior government posts before suffering a heart attack in 1959.
Neave wrote several books about his war experiences including They Have Their Exits (1953), Saturday at M19 (1969) and The Flames of Calais (1976) and Nuremburg (1978). Neave remained a backbencher in Parliament until helping Margaret Thatcher to depose Edward Heath as party leader in 1975. Neave was rewarded by being appointed as head of Thatcher's private office.
When the Conservative Party came to power in 1979 Neave was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Airey Neave was killed by an INLA car bomb outside the House of Commons on 30th March 1979.
After the war, his interest increasingly focused on politics. Thus developed the Airey Neave who became my political neighbour in Oxfordshire, the soft-voiced MP for Abingdon, helpful and pleasant in manner, but always keeping his inner thoughts in reserve. By the time I knew him he had lived through a modest but competent ministerial career, cut short by a heart attack in 1959. A strange story surrounds this setback. It was said that when Airey Neave told the chief whip that his doctor had said he must resign, Ted Heath said curtly, "Well, that's the end of your career". This curt rebuff is said to explain Neave's deep hostility to Heath in later years.
The story does neither man credit. After examining the evidence, Routledge rightly rejects it. But for whatever reason, when it came to the point in 1975, Neave was convinced that Ted Heath must go. Margaret Thatcher shrewdly made him her campaign manager. Most managers cry up the chances of their candidate in order to create a bandwagon of support. Airey Neave, reading the mood of the parliamentary party, persuaded a good many MPs to vote for Thatcher not in order to elect her but to give Heath a sharp warning that he must change his ways.
Airey Neave told me that he believed the time had come for me to resign. He informed me that he was in a position to guarantee that I would be given a top job in the Shadow Cabinet or in any Conservative government which should follow it. I thanked him, but replied that I was not proposing to resign and, in any case, would not be prepared to accept covert deals of this kind from him or anybody else. Neave was a shrewd tactician. I am convinced that I would have won the first ballot if he had not taken charge of the Thatcher campaign. On polling day and, indeed, during the whole campaign, he told colleagues that he was not expecting Mrs Thatcher to win in the first round, but hoped specific individuals would vote for her in order to prevent my majority from becoming too great. I was told afterwards of the Conservative Members who fell for this cunning manoeuvre.
At Oxford, Neave was more occupied by traditional student activities such as partying than by politics or studies, but with a frantic last-minute struggle, he achieved a law degree and then embarked on a career at the Bar. He had joined the Territorial Army at Oxford, convinced that he at least should fight for King and Country, and he enlisted with a searchlight regiment just days before Chamberlain's ultimatum to Hitler precipitated the declaration of war. Posted to France, he was soon parted from his searchlights and took command of an ill-assorted and randomly equipped troop of soldiers in the battle of Calais, with the aim of delaying the German assault on the beaches at Dunkirk. It all but cost him his life and, seriously wounded, he was captured.
From the first, his thoughts were of escape, and his failed attempts led to incarceration in the "escape-proof" prison at Colditz. There is no black-and-white account of fearless British officers and dunderheaded black-hearted German jailers, and the Germans mostly emerge as decent men, frequently resisting extreme provocation by their British and Allied prisoners, although some recaptured escapees were unforgivably executed.
Colditz, the prison for bad boys, became an academy and virtual hothouse for recidivist escapees. Accompanied by a Dutch prisoner, Neave made a "home run" on his second attempt to break out. Escaping from Germany into the safety of Switzerland, he made the dangerous run across France, over the Pyrenees into Spain, and the far from entirely safe journey from Gibraltar back home. He was soon recruited into MI9, a branch of MI6 responsible for the support of the mainly French and Dutch Resistance fighters operating the escape lines for POWs and aircrew evading capture after being shot down. As the war ended, Neave joined the Nuremberg war crimes team and served the indictments on the Nazi leaders.